Trip Diaries: England (2014)

I have never been one to like trips, let alone trips overseas, but four years ago a sense of wanderlust gripped me. Then – 2014 – was my first calendar year working full time. Doing so must change people, at least temporarily, because I was certainly not myself. I was also double hoofing it, completing a graduate school program at the same time. The idea of a physical escape to a faraway land was appealing to me in a way it hadn’t been when I had been burying myself in Skyrim as an undergrad.

So possessed I was with a fancy for travel that I straight up asked my dad if he could take me on a trip to England. Now, just a few years’ prior, I had to resist my parents’ pleas to take part in the University of Dallas’ Rome semester. That study abroad program is one of the highlights of my alma mater, but I didn’t appreciate much in the way of “abroad” and had my differences with “study” when I was a student there. I was more concerned with homesickness and gaming. How roles had changed now that it was I who begged; thankfully, my dad did not resist my request. This was crucial, because on my own support I may have got as far as London, Kentucky, before having to turn back.

-Day 1: Departure, London, and the Excitement of Arrival

So it was on the night of October 9 that my dad and I boarded a plane for Heathrow Airport. I had been on a long flight before – to Tokyo, lasting around 13 hours – so I was ready. This one lasted 9 hours. I don’t remember much about the flight save that at the start I felt claustrophobic and thought briefly that I couldn’t do it. This passed, however, and soon enough I was settled into a long-flight mindset, not to be bothered again. I thought to have my glasses on, so was able to nap some. I remember looking out the window at the stars, and specifically thinking of all the wonder that must be out there, and flashing back to moments when I would look at the stars out the windows of System Shock 2. A thrill passed through me as I realized I was not in the midst of another work week, but rather on a plane headed to England. I had wrought this trip myself, and felt a sense of achievement.

When we landed, I remember going through security and making a ridiculous mistake. I handed the security person my driver’s license – in which I was wearing contacts and wore a beard – when currently I was clean-shaven and wearing glasses. I should have thought to at least take off my glasses. However, as it was, he looked from the card to my face several times, and asked, “Can you remove your glasses?” I felt pretty stupid. I was also afraid they thought I was using a fake ID!

The first part of our trip was spent in London, the second in Dartmoor, and the third and final back in London. I had known from the start that what I really wanted to see in England was the countryside and the moors. When traveling to anyplace, I most want to see the rural and suburban areas. I want to walk around them and soak in the atmosphere. I’m never hyped for the standard tourist attractions. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just not what I get excited about. My dad insisted on a solid, brief experience of London, though, so we didn’t just dart off to the moors.

We checked into our hotel at Regents Park, then headed out. The first attraction we saw was the Sherlock Holmes museum. There’s actually a 221b Baker Street that they’ve refitted into this museum. It was a small, cozy place that had recreations of each room, notably Holmes’ sitting room. There were wax recreations of several scenes from the stories. There was also a trophy of a giant hound. Holmes never hunted the thing, did he?!

Sherlock Holmes statue, Baker Street

Sherlock Holmes statue.

Hound of the Baskervilles trophy.

Hound of the Baskervilles trophy.

Sherlock Holmes museum - sitting room.

Me in sitting room.

At the Baker Street station there was also a large statue of Holmes. I remember being captivated by the little speaker voice saying “Baker Street” as we arrived in the tube. I also remember constantly seeing unsettling posters for some horror movie throughout the tube walkways and stations. Each time I saw it, I remember how happy I had been to forget it. Why do they put such posters in public places? I also remember seeing posters with “The United States of ____” with the blank being a name, like Dan, advertising travel to the U.S. I also remember scanning the heck out of my Oyster card to get in and out.

After the Sherlock Holmes museum, we went to a bookstore named Hatchard’s: a standard book store but with an old-fashioned looking interior. Next we went to the toy store called Hamley’s, a big place filled with craziness. One worker was skating around while holding all these spinning toys and stuff. It was a madhouse! Our visits to these two stores involved lots of walking around London, including through Piccadilly Square.

England trip - Piccadilly Square

Exactly what I want to see in England.

After this and a brief evening stroll, we retired to the hotel. I remember there was some cottage right near our hotel, that I saw every time we returned, but I can’t remember what it was named. White Cottage?

-Day 2: Tourist Spots Part One, and a Pressing Homesickness

The first night in London was a restless one for me. This contrasts sharply with my Tokyo trip, which I will write about here later. On that trip, I crashed the first night, and just about each night after. I slept deeply and darkly. But on the England trip, an unfortunate trend of insomnia began. I tried to squelch it each time by reading, which hardly works for me when I’m struggling to fall asleep. I also occasionally thought of that unsettling movie poster. I remember on several trips some unsettling movie poster or DVD cover bothering me late into the night.

I finally fell asleep, and the next morning woke up with a new and deep sense of homesickness. At this time of my life, the part about being away from home that always got me was having to sleep and wake someplace else. I remember when I lived on campus my first semester of college that during the day I was okay. It was when I had to face a dark night or woke up first thing in the morning when longing for home hit the hardest.

Sleeplessness and homesickness regardless, I joined my dad for another day in London. This first full day there, we saw some of the standard tourist hot spots.

First, we visited Westminster Abbey. It was beautiful and impressive, a huge building with several memorable sights. I remember especially the tombs for various public figures, like Laurence Olivier.

Westminster Abbey, inner grounds

This is the only picture I found of Westminster that I took, but trust me that I will look for more.

After Westminster, we walked to Buckingham palace and the surrounding grounds. It was all a very beautiful area. I liked walking around the parks and seeing the ducks in the lakes, especially.

In front of Buckingham Palace

Standing sleepily near Buckingham Palace.

Swans in the park areas near Buckingham

Swans in the park areas near Buckingham.

Picture of a tree in park areas near Buckingham

A picture of a tree I took in the same area.

Big Ben

Me and Big Ben.

Next, we visited the Churchill War Museum. This is setup in an underground bunker that had been used by Churchill and other military and government leaders during World War II. There were several interesting stories about the war and about Churchill. One was that he would feign deafness when someone, like one of the generals, would start challenging one of his points; a form of “what’s that, I can’t hear you!” Some of the audio bits had you pick up a phone to hear them – an interesting touch. We ate lunch there. The eatery was within the underground bunker too.

Churchill statue

Statue of Winston Churchill.

Entrance to Churchill War Museum

The entrance into the Churchill War Museum.

After the museum, we walked around the parks again, then returned to the hotel. (What was the name of that cottage place? I saw it every time we walked back to the hotel! Come on.)

That night we walked to Primrose Hill for a satisfying view of the London skyline. Several locals were there. I remember hearing one young English lady exclaiming “It’s perfect!” but I hadn’t got the words before it or after it. Since, I have always wondered what she was talking about. The weather?

Primrose Hill

The view from Primrose Hill.

Next we went to Harrod’s department store. This place was huge! And it had some of the best interior decorations for a shopping place I’ve ever seen: one of the escalator sections was all fixed up like an Egyptian tomb. There were tons of stores, and downstairs there were several eatery places. After buying some sweets, we returned to the hotel for the night. (That stupid cottage place! Augh, what was it called?)

-Day 3: Tower and Thames

The second night saw more sleep for me, but still not enough. I woke feeling fatigued, and depressed that such an interesting trip was juxtaposed with insomnia and homesickness. Nonetheless, I walked out of the hotel into the fresh morning air determined to blot all that darkness out of my mind and enjoy another day in London.

The major tour we did this day was to the Tower of London. This is one of those “must see” tourist places if you visit London, and was more interesting than I thought it’d be. It’s like a nice little castle area, with a long history. At the time they had recently finished a “Field of Poppies” memorial honoring the World War I dead. It was an impressive display.

The tour guide we had was a very likeable and funny fellow. The Tower of London Guard all seem like they love their job. They’ve each had to work really hard to get there, too; our guide referenced, I believe, joining the military and getting to that position through promotions. “Any Americans here?” he asked at one point. “If you had been willing to pay your taxes this could be your history too.” Hah! It was all said in good fun. Note that the whole experience was not a tour, as you could break away and explore on your own after a brief guide of the grounds.

(My brother, when visiting England during his Rome semester – that he actually went on – skipped the Tower of London because he thought it looked boring or scary or something.)

I also learned that any suggestions towards the reigning monarch’s death was considered treason. So you couldn’t even speculate what the next monarch will be like, lest you want to commit treason. We walked freely about after finishing the guided section, and saw several exhibits, all topped off by a view of the royal treasury. It’s a lot of stuff made of gold. We then ate in a café there, and sat with an older English lady who laughed and said “Oh my” when I said I wanted to visit Scotland.

After leaving the Tower of London, we walked up and down the Thames, crossed Millennium Bridge, and passed by the Globe Theater. We then returned to our hotel for dinner and the night. (It will come to me…just think…cottage…now; what cottage? Williard’s Cottage? White Cottage? Winifred’s Cottage? Was it even a “W”?)

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge.

(Note: I intend to look for some good pics of the Tower of London. I’m sure we took some, but I can only find one that isn’t very good.)

-Day 4: The British Museum, and Granola Bars

The first task we did today was go to Paddington Station to pick up our train tickets for our approaching trip to Exeter. We also saw the Paddington bear statue.

Paddington Bear statue

The statue of Paddington Bear. I wish I had sat next to it or posed with it or something.

We spent the rest of the day at the British Museum. What can I say? Would I be criminal for not writing much about it here? My journal entry notes no details and I couldn’t find any pictures except a few blurry ones. I will try to update this section in the future. We also ate there, and I remember worrying what it would be like if I never slept again.

Next, we got granola bars. Why am I writing this? Well, because I journaled it! This is what I wrote: “Got Granola [sic] bars at Waitros retail store; these were for breakfast at Bovey Castle.” Really? Why, that’s very interesting! For some reason, I thought this an important detail to journal. So, in all, this day we went to the British Museum and got granola bars.

After, we returned to our hotel, for the last night in London before heading out to the country. (Pleasant Cottage? Peacock Cottage? Pretzel Cottage? Rose Cottage?)

-Day 5: Darting Off to Dartmoor

We woke to leave our little hotel room in Regents Park, saying goodbye to it and the nameless cottage one last time. We went to Paddington station and began a scenic three-hour train ride to the Exeter-St. David station.

Looking out the train window at the rural landscape was fascinating. I remember seeing one small church with an England flag outside of it. An England flag, not United Kingdom flag. I don’t think I saw one of those flying anywhere else. It made me think that that little church was a little corner of fundamentalism, equivalent to small churches in Texas that fly the Texas flag and have signs that read “God Bless the Republic of Texas.”

London had been great, and I’d love to go back. But I was itching to get out to the countryside. As the train whisked us away to the land that inspired The Hound of the Baskervilles, I thought cheesily that I might be undergoing the same train ride that Sherlock Holmes took.

Now, I wouldn’t be heading to Baskerville Hall, but upon arriving at the station my dad and I rode a cab to Bovey Castle, a very nice hotel. It was a fairly long drive, and the hotel had a long driveway itself, from which you could see a great view of the building and grounds as you gradually approached them.

Bovey Castle is a very nice place to stay. It was quiet – that was the first aspect I noticed. Outside on the grounds or inside, the atmosphere is one of silence. The hallways and public sitting rooms are lavish areas and what one would think of as part of a British mansion. The elevator – or, lift – used to get to our room was a small, quaint contraption that required manual operation, and that I was afraid of (I have a terrible fear of elevators). The room had a nice view over the grounds. If I lightly used clichés and indulged in fanciful, stereotypical descriptions, and wasn’t self-conscious about sounding too American, I’d say that the whole place felt like something out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. But I’m not like that, so I won’t. It was a nice getaway.


We walked for about an hour around the grounds and surrounding farmland and rural area. There was a little path you could follow, and we eventually came out onto a road. We also came upon and walked through a quaint and Thief-y church.



That night we returned to Bovey Castle and had dinner there. We also walked some out of the front entrance, down the driveway. At night, this place was pitch black, and even more dead silent. I remember looking around, thinking of the vast farmlands and moors around, sitting in the total darkness and silence, and how detached this place seemed. No wonder it inspired Arthur Conan Doyle! I imagined what horrors might be creeping about. Getting to sleep was a struggle here, as well. It was a little too quiet. I also heard a dog howling at one point – just for a little while, but I heard it. I swear.

-Day 6: Touring the Moors

The next morning, we met with a tour guide, Richard Ware, to show us around Dartmoor. He was a very pleasant, enjoyable guide, and though I had felt some qualms about a guided tour, this day hardly felt like a guided tour at all. It was more like if a family member or some close friend showed you around their home town.

First, we stopped at and saw an old bridge (we were driven around in the guide’s car to different places). I can’t remember the significance of it, and my journal does not detail it, but it was the first stop and a nice little river area with lots of rocks.


The tour guide, Richard, and me.


Next, we stopped at the side of one road and walked to the place that inspired Merripit House. This was a very memorable walk. At the time, the weather was very wet and foggy, and at this particular point the fog was at its thickest. As we sloshed along in the mud, rain and fog about us, I realized that this is what it must have been like for poor Baskerville.


Next we stopped at Tor Royal, according to our guide the place that inspired Baskerville Hall. I was a little disappointed, as it certainly wasn’t the size of what you’d think Baskerville Hall would be. The fellow living there was very nice, though. He welcomed us in and talked about the place a bit. There were also dogs there. They liked me, but at one point I stepped in doo doo. Richard our guide wasn’t too concerned; he said to just wipe it off in the wet grass. Considering how growing up stepping in dog doo was like the worst thing in the world and was met with disaster-response levels of panic, I was surprised by this nonchalant attitude towards the ordeal, and embarked briefly on an existential journey. Was I wrong for always thinking that stepping in dog doo was such a terror? Why couldn’t I ever have just let my hair down, broken out of my shell, and been cool about stepping in poo?


Next we stopped at the Princetown visitor center. There were some pleasant guest shops, one of which had a small historical museum on the area. There was an exhibit on The Hound of the Baskervilles there, as well. Here there were restrooms that charged you to use them. I remember our guide saying “Can you believe it? Five p. to take a wee.” Indeed!


We next stopped at a pub. I had pizza and coke. (When I go abroad, I don’t mess around.) Afterwards we visited a church. There was some connection to the War of 1812, but there was also a part that was donated by the sisters of America or something (?). Unfortunately my journal has no details. It was another beautiful church. In it, as well as in the one prior, I imagined what it would be like to attend such a place regularly, it being just where you went.


We next walked around what had been a Bronze Age village. This was a breathtaking part of the trip, and perhaps its highlight for me. The weather had turned just right for us: whereas earlier that day we had seen the moors under the heavy fog atmosphere, now the sky had cleared and the sun shone bright and the skies were blue, perfect for the scenery. There were several high points and rock formations, and I felt as if in another world.


This was the last stop on our tour, and I was sad to see it end. Richard had been a friendly guide, and the sights we saw, and the long drives in between, were beautiful and have lasted in memory. Not having enough of the country air and views, my dad and I went for another hour plus long walk around the area about Bovey Castle once we had returned.


That night we had dinner in Bovey Castle again. Nowhere else in my journal did I note what I had eaten, but this night I had “fish-n-chips and delicious chocolate ice cream!” I guess it was especially delicious for me to write it?

We explored some of the lavish sitting rooms before retiring for the night.

-Day 7: London Once More

We woke for one last morning in beautiful Bovey Castle. After walking the interior and grounds for a bit more, we said our goodbye and were driven back, by a very lively and entertaining taxi driver, to the Exeter-St. David’s station. From there, we rode the train back to Paddington Station, and I enjoyed the rural scenery one last time.


We checked in at a much smaller hotel in the Paddington Station area, then walked around the streets a little while. We had dinner at an Italian café, then turned in for the night. (There was no cottage near this hotel, thank goodness.)

-Day 8: Returning Home

After waking up the next morning, we took the tube to the Heathrow Airport. After getting through security, and waiting in a sitting area for a while, we boarded a plane for DFW. Then it was back off to home sweet home.


Ready to go home!

Though I enjoyed the trip, and remember it fondly, throughout a moderate homesickness overhung everything. I remember during one video call home I wished that I could leap through the screen and be there. But this was not a mood against where I was – I enjoyed it – rather, it was simply homesickness qua homesickness. This longing contrasts with my wanderlust when I actually *was* home. How deceptive our feelings can be! I wanted to travel somewhere while home, but then longed for home while traveling. I remember at one point as we walked London, we stopped in a small retail store, and I specifically wished I could be back in the good old retail store at home. Often at restaurants, especially with drink refills, I longed to be back in a restaurant I knew.

Overall, though, this trip has remained one of my top memorable life experiences. I’d love to go back someday, and would recommend this trip to anyone.

The Stickman Stammers Again

I started this blog as a platform for writing about games. However, I now write about games at GameLuster, TechRaptor, and Thief Diaries, and so have decided I could use a blog platform for other topics. I may still write about games here, but I wanted to resurrect this blog of mine as a platform for posts on “real-life stuff and non-gaming stuff.” These are two separate topics, as the latter could include film, while the former would only include topics like travel or life.

I will start by posting about trips I’ve been on.

Thank you for reading!

2017 End of Year Thoughts


2017 was a good year for me. One downside, though, is that I did not play as many games as I wish I could have. Horizon: Zero Dawn is on the backlog, and I’ve only just started Super Mario Odyssey and Persona 5. The games I did play were excellent, and my Game of the Year list, written for GameLuster, may be found here.

There were great Thief FMs this year, the two biggies being two campaigns, one released early in the year – Godbreaker, on January 26 – and one released late in the year – Death’s Cold Embrace, on October 25. The latter has been a work-in-progress of Yandros’ for over a decade, and the former, by Random_Taffer, was in the works for around eight years. The length of time spent on each is evident, and the wait was worth it for both. DCE is longer, but both possess compelling level design, intriguing narrative, and a meticulous attention to detail. They join the other FM campaigns as Dromed marvels that will serve as sources of inspiration for the Thief community for years to come.

Two FMs just released that I must check out, as well. A Short Night’s Work, by bbb, and Home Sweet Home, by the late Lady Rowena (released posthumously by Yandros). The latter will be very special, as Lady Rowena was a highly talented FM creator whose The Seven Sisters is one of the very best.

2018 looks to be a little quieter on the gaming front for me. I should have time to catch up on all the titles of 2017 that I missed. However, that is only in theory – you never know what can happen, and more games I’m interested in may pop up than I think.

I hope you had a satisfying 2017. Here’s to this year, and to a great 2018!


Currently Playing, 11-27-17

I played the Wolfenstein II demo and soon after bought the game during the Steam autumn sale. It runs fine on my PC, and it’s a fine and fun game so far, too. The early story setup was powerful and the characterization, like in the first, is very well done. The shooting’s been fun as well. I love B.J.’s inner thoughts you hear muttered as much as in the first one.

Wolf 2 - Manhattan

I’ve continued play in Breath of the Wild. That game is pure exploration and challenge. The game suggests a main quest, but otherwise leaves everything up to you. You must unlock the potential and, really, don’t have to do anything. But the more you explore, the more you realize you must do in order to overcome enemies, uncover the story, and defeat Ganon.

Death’s Cold Embrace is a persistently unique FM campaign. The cyclical nature of the mission settings and audio ambiance give it a character I haven’t experienced in other FMs. I’m at the fifth mission and have just entered the Dayport Hammerite Chapel. This is the first area with standard Thief II audio ambiance, save perhaps the inventor’s cellar, which I remember had a different audio mix. I am looking forward to seeing where all the story goes in this campaign, but will, of course, savor it.


It’s nearing Christmas time, and I plan to get a Switch with Super Mario Odyssey, either for myself or via request. I also want to get a VR headset, though I may be cursed to continue my habit of passing on them due to price and uncertainty of return. DOOM VFR is what’s tempting me, though the HTC Vive price tag is steep. Is it worth it? For three or more years now, I’ve been saying no.

All for now.

Currently Playing, 11-5-17


2017 has been a great year for games and Thief FMs, and I have some catching up to do.

I’m currently playing through Death’s Cold Embrace, the massive Thief campaign by Yandros and others at TTLG. Full disclosure: I’ve only played a portion of the first mission. This is a true shame, unusual for me with new FMs, but demonstrates how busy I’ve been.

I’m also playing Breath of the Wild, which I had started back in March but let get away from me when Prey came out.

I passed on Persona 5, though I may get it next year; I still have the Thief “Lost Places” contest FMs to get to; I have not yet played Dishonored: Death of the Outsider; Wolfenstein II I will likely get in Steam’s Holiday sale this year, and I’ve passed on it so far due to several complaints about the PC port in Steam reviews; and Super Mario Odyssey, along with a Switch, I plan to get by year’s end.

I wish I had had more time for games this year like in the old days. On paper, 2017 was a year made for me: a true open-world Zelda on a console (not a handheld), a System Shock 2 spiritual successor, two major Thief FM campaigns by some of the best authors (the other being Godbreaker, by Random_Taffer), and an open-world, main-series Mario title. Could it get any better? All I was missing was The Elder Scrolls VI – and time!

Brief Thoughts On Cuphead

I was interested in Cuphead because of its art style. Reading about the game’s merciless difficulty turned me off, but when I eventually decided to purchase it, the game’s start screen made me glad I had. The hand drawn visuals and accompanying music were pitch perfect for a 1930s vibe. This vibe continued and was my gateway into a superb gaming experience.

I have not played many bullet-hell games, and my play of them may stop at Cuphead, but I now appreciate the sense of accomplishment that comes with clearing a section in them. The announcer shouting “Knockout!” is euphoric.

Success requires many failed approaches. You will die a lot in this game. You best the bosses by discerning the types and pattern of their attacks and then iterating a response again and again until successful execution. On some it may take dozens of tries, but once you finally get it, the feeling of achievement makes all the frustration worth it.

There is a Simple mode for each boss battle. If you just want to progress to unlock more bosses and areas to check out, it’s useful, but nothing can replace the sense of accomplishment with defeating a boss on Regular. That, and beating a boss on Simple won’t get you an achievement or a soul contract (the in-game reward…play it and you’ll know what it means).

Even if the difficulty intimidates you, if the art style in any way interests you I recommend you try this game. It’s top-notch design on every level.



Old Gameplay, New Mindset

I’ve played Quake since 1996. I never played online multiplayer and I spent several years at a couple points not playing it. But it has been in my game library for most of my life. Only in the recent three years have I tried understanding it as a pro – and in the past year as a speed-runner. I have changed my mind about Quake, and approach the recent Quake spawns Quake Champions and Dusk differently than I would have five years ago.

In Quake III I loved bot matches. I’d start a match with ten or more bots, on Hardcore or Nightmare difficulty, and proceed to shoot at them, with little thought. I didn’t rocket jump or strafe jump, nor did I control any items. I did practice my aim and memorize where items were. But I was a kid with a toy. I wasn’t competing, only playing.

I have adopted a different mindset with Quake Champions. It is out of necessity – there are no bots in Champions yet. But even with bots I expect I’d tend towards live matches. I want real competitors. I want to practice the skills of Quake multiplayer and better myself. Bot matches don’t do it for me anymore. I want real challenge, not fake challenge. This is a respectable ideal, with the benefit of honing my skills and making me a better player and person. But high ideals bring high costs, and I feel like an idiot most of the time.

Case in point: armed with a rocket launcher, another player ran straight at me with naught but gauntlet drawn. I fired five to ten rockets at this opponent to no avail. Towards me the player ran, and backwards I jumped, right off the stage and into oblivion. Not even a full minute after joining the match, I had been shamed and fell to a score of -1.

Battling bots is fun if less challenge and more gratification equals fun. Fighting live opponents brings more agony but also more achievement. Under my new mindset, I want to practice skills and compete. Quake is different for me.

So too with Dusk. This game relates to Quake only spiritually. All the same I approach it with my new mindset. In this case the goal is not competition but efficient play. Used to I took my time in Quake maps, killing monsters and pacing myself. Now I want to practice efficiency by speed-running.

As I began Dusk I played how I traditionally would play FPS games. In other words, I wasn’t doing much fancy: I ran, jump, shot, and strafed. Then the temptation to bunny hop and strafe-jump hit me. I wanted to complete each level as quickly as possible: why shoot these enemies when I can jump past them?

Recently I had begun speed-running Quake levels. Some I found a way to cut out a majority of the level – disillusioning my old gamer self who thought I had to proceed down a certain path, doing all the right stuff to reach the end. Speed-running is scheming and hacking – playing a game not as intended. It’s thrilling to complete a level doing things you’re not supposed to do. A speed-runner is a gamer rebelling.

Playing Dusk, I rebelled against the typical way of playing an FPS. I wanted to scheme each level. No longer do I pace myself and soak everything in. I only calculate.

My new approach to games leaves something lacking. In my old days, playing Quake for fun lent the game atmosphere. I was lost in a world and there was mystery. Speed-running kills the atmosphere. The gameworld becomes a series of obstacles and objects to hack through as fast as possible. Any inefficient detour is illogical. I miss the old days of soaking in an atmosphere, but at the same time regret that I never learned to speed run before. Speed-running is recognizing and combating a game’s structure and system for what they are, not living in a fake fantasy where a set of polygons and textures is a world.

So, obviously, in speed-running Dusk, escapism is sacrificed for calculation. In Quake Champions, mindless fun is sacrificed for agonizing competition. I miss what I have given up, but I love the new mindset I have adopted. There is more achievement and accomplishment to be had by competing and speed-running. There is more work and, as a result, more reward. I miss the old days, but it’s time to move on, grow up, and git gud.


Revisiting the Cradle…Again

One night this past weekend I journeyed through the Shalebridge Cradle once again. I’ve played through the map around five times, the first being back in 2004. I haven’t played through Robbing the Cradle dozens of times like some have. This is intentional – it’s a special experience and I want to keep it that way.

This time I was playing it with Thief 3 Gold and was able to experience it sans load zone. Like the other levels in Thief: DS, removing this break in the level allows for a more seamless experience. It was refreshing going from Outer to Inner Cradle and back again uninterrupted.

The Gold patch did introduce a sound bug that hadn’t been there before, which I’ll extrapolate on below, but otherwise the Gold experience was fine. A higher FOV and higher-res textures from the Sneaky Upgrade complemented the lack-of-a-load-zone for an improved Cradle experience.

The level was as horrifying as ever. The audio in it always gets to me, especially in the Outer Cradle. It’s a shame the maps in T:DS had to be small. I would love a longer experience with such ambiance and visuals about me. It’s short and sweet as is.

The outdoor area at the start sets the mood perfectly. The start noise, followed by wind ambiance, followed by a terrifying bird screech, and lastly followed by some kind of pathetic horn tune (like a kid playing a toy trumpet), all with the backdrop of a growling noise, combines for a deliciously horrifying soundscape. I wish there was more point to the area at the left of the Cradle. That aside, once you dive into the cellar door, the real fun begins.

The way the Outer Cradle messes with your mind is twisted. All the knocks and doors opening and voices mingled together completely horrifies me each time I play it. The visuals, from the decayed walls to the creepy angel-face decorations, terrify me as well. It’s brilliant design and remains one of the best horror experiences in gaming.

Of course, the Inner Cradle is no different. But here, you’re not alone – you have the friendly puppets with you! I’m joking, of course, as it’s the first sight of one of these undead creatures that’s one of the level’s most frightening moments. The audio ambiance seems to include more twisted laughs and voices here, as if the patients’ tortured spirits overwhelm the children’s cries and laughter. Makes sense as this is the ward where the patients were kept.

Their cells make for some more twisted backstory and audio. And screw Ion Storm – seriously, screw them – for having a puppet in one of the cells. This time I caught it before unlocking the door, but other times I’d rush into the cell to escape an approaching puppet…only to run in to another one.

And these puppets still freak me out. I’ve long become immune to Thief’s haunts, great as they are, but even 13 years later the puppets cause me to jam the Escape key and cry. The noises they make, their jittering, and the manner they run at you in – an immediate lurch towards you – freaks me!

One scene that always stands out is in the shock therapy treatment room. In here, you see a puppet bent over, pawing at something on the ground, and in the chair in the room sits a wax mask (this tied into the backstory of the patient kept in solitary). There are many horrific scenes in the Inner Cradle, but this one unnerves me the most.

And I had forgotten about the laughter that begins when you ride the elevator up to solitary. Seriously – screw Ion Storm!

There are many other moments that always scare me because I had forgotten about them. But I don’t want to write them down here. I want to forget about them again so they can scare me the next time I play! Along with this, I have no gameplay recording or screenshots from this most recent playthrough because I didn’t want to distract myself with it. You can still check out the recording I took for my Advanced Project:

The Cradle can’t be communicated through screenshots or video, though. You really have to play it. You have to be the one exploring that place to feel its horror. Each time I play it, I feel like someone is behind me and any moment I could feel someone grabbing me. I love it!

I do have one critical note, though. First, an anecdote: when I first played the Cradle in June 2004, I wasn’t as frightened by it as most. I found it scary, true, but I wasn’t horrified by it. It didn’t instill in me a great sense of dread like Thief’s zombies in Cragscleft had done when I played that level as a kid. But each time I’ve revisited the Cradle, first in 2009, again in 2013, again in 2015, and now this year, I have been completely horrified by it and have felt palpable dread. Why is this?

I have a theory, which leads into my critical note. The first time I played this level, I had activated Lauryl’s ghost before exploring the Inner Cradle. Each subsequent time, I have left the attic with fuse in-hand, not frobbing Lauryl’s painting until after exploring the Inner Cradle. I think having Lauryl as a guide on my first playthrough softened the horror. On each other playthrough, braving the depths of the Cradle completely alone – as just Garrett in this haunted place, looking for some info on the scary hag – made it more horrifying.

Thus, I think allowing the meeting with Lauryl so early on is a design shortcoming. Imagine if you had met Brother Murus in one of the first rooms in Return to the Cathedral – it may have dampened the horror. True, it isn’t the same – Lauryl is a ghostly little girl, Murus some gregarious priestly fellow – but I’m sure you appreciate my point.

The attic needs to be locked. The fuse, then, would be placed elsewhere – maybe in the room at the bottom of the stairs leading to the attic, or in a closet somewhere. You’d use the fuse and be able to access the Inner Cradle. In the Inner Cradle – say the morgue, a treatment room, or someplace deep inside –you’d find the key to the attic. If you triggered the pounding noise already, there could be an objective for “Finding a key to the attic to see what is making the noise.” Then, from the Inner Cradle, you’d return to the Outer segment and enter the attic. To make it more creepy, Lauryl’s painting could be placed front-and-center – imagine how frightening that’d be upon opening the door! Then you could meet Lauryl and have her speaking to you after having sufficiently explored the Inner Cradle.

Why the designers made it easy to reach her so soon, even leading you there by placing the fuses in the attic, is beyond me. Wouldn’t they have wanted the player to explore all of the Cradle without Lauryl’s voice? On my first playthrough I found her sudden voice-overs partly annoying – something else that detracted from the horror (note that on subsequent playthroughs I have not found Lauryl annoying). The fact that straightaway you can enter the attic and activate Lauryl is just wrong. Someone doing that on a first playthrough will not experience the same amount of horror as someone going through it without Lauryl. This design oversight needs to be corrected. I’d do it…but I’ve never messed with Thief: DS editing. Is there a doctor in the house?

Well, there’s my critical note. Otherwise, the level’s a masterpiece: in terms of visuals, audio, backstory, and structure, absolutely brilliant. Kudos to the designer(s).

As noted earlier, in Gold I encountered an audio bug: the pounding on the attic door continued as if it was close to me after I left the attic area. It went all the way to the Inner Cradle – a quick load and crossing the threshold of the Outer Cradle a couple times stopped it. If you frob Lauryl’s painting on your first visit to the attic, you wouldn’t have to worry about this bug anyway. I don’t so I had to worry about it.

            Cradle is the most effective Thief horror level at instilling dread. I find it brilliantly horrifying each time I play it and cherish the experience. This most recent Gold replay was a real treat. Perhaps on my next playthrough I’ll record it and take some screenshots. This time, I just wanted to suckle it to myself.


Initial Thoughts On: Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy

Initial Thoughts On Crash featured image

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Crash Bandicoot remasters.

Usually these visual overhauls come off shallow. The same game with newer graphics stapled on leaves me feeling empty, and I even prefer the game with the original graphics. Indeed, the newer graphics take away the charm.

But Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy works. I’ve had good fun with it and will continue to. The visual updates don’t detract from the experience nor does the game feel hollow – it is simply a fun revisit of classics.

Tweaks have improved the games, especially the original. You may now use an analog stick –though I prefer the directional buttons in the sideview stages – and you may save after each level. For the original this means not having to wait for the next bonus round to give you a save point or a password (and these not being guaranteed should you fail the bonus round). This does not make as much of a difference in the second and third games, though now you may save from any spot in the warp room and time zone.

The original Crash remaster also allows you to retry bonus rounds. In the original Crash, if you failed a bonus round you had no second chance. Now you may try as much as you’d like.

Other tweaks soften difficulty late in the game. “Heavy Machinery” now has a much needed earlier checkpoint box, for example. And Koala Kong was a tad easier.

The animations are energetic. The visuals are beautiful. The platforming is fun. Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy works.

My other blog project: The Thief Diaries

Here at The Stammering Stickman I post thoughts, reviews, videos, lists, features and whatever else on games as I will. It is my outlet for game-based written and audio-visual content and journal-style entries. But I have another blog with more cohesion: The Thief Diaries.

This project was recently begun as a continuation of my work in Evangelizing Thief. I do brief write-ups of Thief missions, official and fan-made, accompanied by my gameplay videos and screenshots. Gameplay videos will include my full playthrough and a shorter highlights version of it.

The posts currently there (the first two entries) are being updated right now. The rest I plan to be final out of the gate.

Please take a look. If you’re not into Thief, this could serve as an intro guide to some of its best content. And be sure to check out Evangelizing Thief as well!